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The Faculty Dining Room

When I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh my graduate assistantship required me to work in the University Testing Service. My boss, Dr. Fahey, was a tall, craggy-faced ex-Navy man who routinely ate his lunch in the University Faculty Club Dining Room one floor above our offices. We graduate students usually brought a couple of sandwiches which we ate in the cavernous student cafeteria in the basement.

One day Fahey invited me to have lunch with him “upstairs.” What elegance! What quiet splendor! We were seventeen stories in the air with the view that height implies. Dr. Fahey did this several times. Maybe he was trying to persuade me that the academic life had some perks too because many of us were headed toward the money the Department of Defense had to offer research folks. He needn’t have bothered because I had always wanted to teach in a small college.

Transition a few years and there was another faculty dining room; one not so grand as the university’s, but a lot better than a quick sandwich in the student union coffee shop. There were, in fact, two faculty dining rooms; one was very posh with paneled walls and one long table seating about twenty. This was used by the college president when he entertained dignitaries and the board of trustees. It was called the President’s Dining Room to distinguish it from the faculty dining room. Food in the president’s dining room was prepared to order and served by specially trained students. Food in the faculty dining room usually consisted of leftovers from the previous day’s student fare and was served help yourself style at a steam table. This was fine with most of us who ate there. There were salads, breads, meat and veggies, and usually ice cream for dessert, all at a very reasonable price. This was a very good deal for single faculty members.

The faculty dining room was open to any faculty member and to their guests. Sometimes students were guests. If you wanted to give your head lab assistant a treat, that was one way to do it. There also was the advantage that having the occasional student eat there dispelled the student rumors that the faculty dining room served prime rib, lobster, and rack of lamb at absurdly low prices. That doesn’t fly when the student guest finds the leftovers from the desiccated roast beef he had the night before facing him on the steam table.

There developed a few conventions in our dining room: There were three tables for eight and several tables for four and for two. One very senior woman faculty member and department chair always sat at the same table for eight. This we considered her table. Of course anyone could sit there and if there was an open seat available at her table and you sat somewhere else Gertrude (not her real name) would be somewhat offended. Faculty seating themselves elsewhere were quick to tell Gertrude that they had committee business with Jim and Sue so they had to take a different table.

When I began professoring in the mid-’50s, most people smoked; there were few restrictions. There were ash trays on all the faculty dining room tables. Some would have a cigarette going in an ashtray beside their plate while they ate. Some also smoked while they lectured. When the restrictions on smoking started we had some truly outraged faculty. The faculty dining room was required to have one, one mind you, no-smoking table and it had to be designated with a small no-smoking card prominently displayed on the table.

Well you would have thought that Armageddon had arrived. Keep in mind that this restriction applied to only one small table for four. One of our number, a professor of political science and a former bird colonel in army intelligence was so outraged and filled with rebellion at the unfairness of it all that after finishing his lunch he rose, marched to the offending table, picked up the little card and its holder and marched back to our table. He put the sign on the table by his plate and promptly lit a cigarette, glaring about daring anyone to interfere. No one did. And no one laughed either, although there was much laughter once the story got around. Psychologists have known for a long time that the relationship between intelligence and judgment is somewhat tenuous.

Another occasion demonstrated that my colleagues could be surprisingly insular. The occasion was our pre-school conference when we were all treated to lunch in the faculty dining room as guests of the college. I think the administration figured that if we went home for lunch we might not come back. This was a time when we saw many of the faculty we didn’t know very well or hadn’t seen all summer. I was in line immediately in front of a short, grey-haired, woman professor of Spanish. Language professors were able to deduct from their taxes the cost of overseas trips to countries speaking the languages they taught so Margaret had spent a pleasant and low cost six weeks in Spain. Professors of Psychology and Professors of Spanish don’t really have much academic common ground but “My Fair Lady” had just proved a smash hit so I said, “Tell me Margaret, does the rain in Spain stay mainly in the plain?” Her reply was forceful and to the point. “No it hardly ever rains on the plains there.” O dear, had the woman missed my point? I tried again, “You mean it doesn’t rain mainly on the plain in Spain?” Now in an increasingly high dudgeon, “I just told you …” and that ended my conversational attempt.

All this happened about fifty years ago. As far as I know the faculty dining room still serves its clientele but as I haven’t been a regular there for over a quarter of a century, someone else will have to tell stories about the new folks.

  • CathyStripeLester

    I enjoyed reading this, Henry! Yes, I remember the furore over the first feeble attempts to have no-smoking areas/tables. And I totally agree, the relationship between intelligence and judgement is tenuous. I’ve seen too many examples!

    • Henry Klugh

      Thanks Cathy; it’s always fun to write something people enjoy reading.

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